The Isis Theater closed its doors the same year Elvis made his final appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show: 1957. To say a lot has happened since then would be an understatement.
More recently, the large white building where The Isis was located at 743 Haywood Road in West Asheville housed the neighborhood Italian joint Pastabilities. That restaurant closed Dec. 31, 2010, with the building’s owner, Scott Woody, determined to restore the Isis space to its former glory. There was buzz for a time about the new Isis opening quickly — some time in this calendar year — as a restaurant, a bluegrass and Americana music venue, some heard it would be a dinner theater.
Regardless, the buzz on Haywood quickly established that the Isis’s restoration might breathe excitement into West Asheville, further cementing the neighborhood’s music, food and arts habit, and giving outsiders another reason to choose Haywood Road as a going-out destination. Much of that and more may come, to be sure. But as Woody, who has been in bands for 20 years, put it, “I’m a musician. Musicians never do things on time. This show is going to start a little late.”
Woody is a veterinarian by trade, whose three decades owning an animal clinic in Atlanta have given him a firm grip on the roller coaster ride of small business ownership. Sure, he’s a casual guy with apparently exquisite taste and a keen eye for hidden possibilities, but he is also a banjo picker. As such, he’s used to surmounting obstacles both predictable and not. After all, he plays an instrument that doesn’t stay in tune long enough to make it through a three-minute song.
It’s a good thing Woody has a banjo background, then, because his renovation of the Isis Theater space has been pushed back a few times. Contrary to the rumors, Woody says there have been no issues with mold or asbestos in the building — except 50 tiles in front of the doors, which contained 1 percent asbestos and, he says, were “all removed by a certified environmental company.”
The real story of the venue’s evolution started when Woody purchased the building in 1998 and then started moving to the area from Atlanta a few years later. Once he shut his vet clinic, he set the open date for his Isis renovation for June 2011. He inspected the place closely and it became clear he’d have to gut it entirely. He moved the target to October, and then discovered the bureaucracy involved in getting licenses for things like live music would take a little longer than planned. Now, he and his kids — with whom he’ll co-own the new Isis — are shooting for March 2012.
Drew Smith, co-owner of the Westville Pub, is looking forward to the opening. The more there is to do in the neighborhood, the better. Smith is not exactly certain of what’s in the works at 743 Haywood, but he looks forward to the possibility of welcoming another good neighbor and more vibrancy to the strip. “All I can say is, ‘Welcome to the neighborhood,’” he says. Business on Haywood is good, “so it will be great to have more going on in the neighborhood. The more, the merrier.”
As Woody marches toward his new deadline, though, licensing prohibits him from calling the Isis a music venue. Upon opening, it will primarily be a restaurant that can be rented out for special events. “It’ll begin as a unique place,” he says, with a knowing smile. “Over time, it will become even more unique.”
With three bars, two “dining platforms,” a main dining room, an event hall, a private party room upstairs, a balcony and an outdoor patio and green space (including parking, bike racks and a winding pathway to the street), “unique” sounds accurate. Where Pastabilities occupied the same space quietly, somewhat dwarfed by the building’s rather large façade, the Isis is likely to augment the entire atmosphere of its section of Haywood Road.
Folks familiar with the now-defunct pasta restaurant may be pleasantly shocked by the transformation of the space. Since the original Isis Theater closed, for example, the ceiling has been lowered three times. Woody and his son stripped it back to the rafters, exposing an 18-foot ceiling in what will be the event space.
In an attempt to stay true to the building’s history, they’re using the original wood to build dining tables and are having a sign built to mimic the theater’s original marquee. They’ve converted the former projection room into a sizable upstairs, which will house a small bar and booths, bathrooms and an entertainment space that can be rented out and closed off from the rest of the venue. There’s also a small dining platform up there for live music or readings. On a typical night the area will provide extra bar seating. The upstairs also extends a balcony arm along the north wall, over the downstairs bar and kitchen, with a view of the main “event space.”
In the kitchen will be Mike Mahoney, known for his work at the Island Grill in Atlantic Beach, N.C., where he cooked for more than a decade. Woody defines Mahoney’s style as “casual fine dining” — somewhere between what Sunny Point does and what you’ll find at The Admiral, but not quite as fancy as downtown restaurants like Cucina 24 or Curate. “Those are smaller plates and more sophisticated food,” Woody says. “Previously I’ve used the phrase ‘not bar food,’ but I want to be really clear I think bar food is fine. There’s a lot of really good bar food in town — the LAB has good bar food, Westville Pub and the Universal Joint … the Admiral is the only place on this side of town where you can sit down and have a sophisticated dinner. Then of course there’s good healthy food at Sunny Point. We’re going to try to fill a niche [between those two things] without competing with anyone else.”
Woody hopes leasing the hall out for private events will help keep things interesting and lively — not only inside his venue, but in the neighborhood as well. Isis will be equipped for all manner of events, from company meetings and social events to weddings; there’s also the possibility bands and DJs might rent the space to put on shows and dance parties. Indeed, he’s installed enough power in the hall to accommodate sophisticated lighting and sound equipment, and established a place for a DJ or sound booth. He hasn’t ruled out the possibility of showing films in the future, but it’s not in the immediate plans.
“We’ll be trying hard to make sure what we do fits in with the scheme of West Asheville,” he says. “If all the venues in the neighborhood work together, we can create West Asheville as a destination point. There are a lot of people [in the area] who are peripheral, not tourists. They’d like to come enjoy Asheville but don’t want to go downtown anymore because it’s too packed. … People could come over [to West Asheville] and have choices. They could say — ‘Let’s go out Friday. Let’s go to West Asheville. We can see a show, we can go to the pub and hear a small band. We can sit out at the UJ, have good dinner at the Admiral or check out what’s going on at the Isis.’”